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Multi-Media Deadly Force Training
By Dan Hawkins
Nationwide, efforts to improve interagency communications between first responders have ebbed and flowed across two decades now. Great attention has been paid since 9/11 to improving the ability of police, fire, and emergency medical services responders to communicate across jurisdictions and disciplines. Only very recently have efforts broadly begin to change focus from the mere ability to communicate, often evidenced in initiatives narrowly concerned with technology, to observable improvements in response. One key to removing communications from the perennial #1 spot on the after-action report hit parade is through established accountability for its success during incidents.
Interoperability observers know that when it comes to good communications, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) offers needed structure to what otherwise can be—and often dramatically is—chaos when multiple agencies come together during incidents. The Incident Command System (ICS) is the well-known, if less well-exercised, NIMS tool at the tip of the spear. Among its many contributions intertwining command, control, and communications are:
• Common terminology for functions, resources, and facilities
• Modularity, structured scalability, unity of command, and managed span of control that can be supported through automated means
• Standardized resource typing and management means
• Predictable incident planning cycles and standardized planning tools
• A functional subdivision called the communications unit
The last of these, the communications unit, serves an obvious function. Perhaps less obviously, it is traditionally also responsible for all information technology functions during incident response, including radio, data, and telephone communications. Under ICS, the communications unit leader, or COML as abbreviated belying the system’s military roots, manages the functions and potentially a cadre of resources to serve these ends. If there is one ICS position married to the incident commander (IC) in accountability for communications interoperability, it is the COML.
In December 2004, demand for improved interagency communications during response to incidents led the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to include in its FY2005 grant guidance a requirement for jurisdictions doing tactical interoperable communications plans to have personnel trained as communications unit leaders. This caused something of a stir as the sole means of meeting the requirement was through training provided by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG). While NWCG-trained COMLs have served admirably in many incidents far beyond the bounds of wildland fire, essentially all observers recognized that no truly all-hazards training was available to Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) and other metropolitan regions subject to the FY2005 DHS funding requirement.
Since that funding cycle, more lessons have been learned. One key finding of the DHS Tactical Interoperable Communications Plan Scorecards released in January 2007 was: “A NIMS certified communications unit leader course is needed to improve proficiency in fulfilling the responsibilities of the communications unit during incident response.” There seems to be universal agreement that this is the case.
SEARCH, a nonprofit consortium of the states, was contracted this past January to produce the all-hazard standard of performance (task list) for the position and the training curriculum, then pilot the course and train a group of trainers. In its role as a primary technical assistance provider to U.S. Department of Justice and DHS interoperability grantees since 2003, SEARCH has been heavily involved in development of ICS communications capabilities. It received endorsement to take on this effort from key public safety organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, (APCO), and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).
In late January, the all-hazard COML Development Project was officially kicked off. An oversight committee was established consisting of three people representing the DHS SAFECOM Program, the NIMS Integration Center, and APCO. A working group of a dozen practitioners supported by staff with extensive ICS experience was assembled from the domains of law enforcement, fire, urban search and rescue, and emergency management.
The COML Working Group labored by conference call, e-mail, and through a collaborative project Web site from February through mid-April to draft the position task list and training curriculum. It met in Salt Lake City, April 17-18, to finalize the draft curriculum for submittal to the Oversight Committee, make recommendations on how the course will be credentialed and deployed, and guide development of course materials.
The first (alpha) pilot class based on the curriculum was scheduled at the time of this writing to be held in Los Angeles County, May 8-10. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) has been an outspoken proponent for all-hazards communications unit leader training through U.S. Department of Justice and DHS advisory groups. SEARCH has partnered with LASD to pilot the course across response disciplines in the county. Though limited in attendance for pilot purposes, the alpha class and a beta to be conducted in early June 2007 will cover the entire curriculum through 24 hours of instruction and exercises.
Final course materials will be assembled following the pilot classes and used in two train-the-trainer classes tentatively planned for late June and mid-July in locations yet to be determined. With the assistance of the Oversight Committee in identifying qualified participants, about 50 people will participate in specialized deliveries of the course designed to prepare them for its delivery. Trained ICS communications unit leaders with multi-hazard, multi-discipline experience and training credentials will be given preference for attendance.
Further yet to be determined is whether this course will, indeed, be adopted as a standard, NIMS-qualified training program to prepare people to serve in the position. That is not certain, but the project’s inclusive approach lends credibility. It has been given great support from police, fire, communications, and emergency management officials across the country. Representatives of the National Interagency Fire Center, an exponent of NWCG training and qualifications, and urban search and rescue (USAR) teams have contributed tirelessly as part of the COML Working Group. Perhaps most important, the question remains to be answered whether NIMS credentialing for any ICS position will extend beyond training to demonstrated proficiency as does the NWCG Wildland Fire Qualification System. Time will tell.
Whether via voice or data, electronic or even person-to-person, communications across organizational boundaries are traditionally challenged during even the most relaxed of human endeavors. When it comes to emergency response, where timeframes are compressed and life-or-death decisions are inevitable, the true purpose of public service is worn precariously on every responder’s sleeve, and all means of making communications an invisible ally are needed. The quiet service of ICS communications unit leaders is central to achieving interoperability across our increasingly complex voice and data communications environment during multi-agency response to emergencies.
Dan Hawkins is director of Public Safety Programs for SEARCH, The National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. He is author of “Communications Interoperability: A Guide for Interagency Communications Projects,” published by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and endorsed by the DHS SAFECOM program. He is a NIMS-qualified and experienced communications unit leader, having served in the position in dozens of multi-hazard incidents over the past 20 years. n
Published in Law and Order, Oct 2006
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